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Review of LICENSED TO ILL at Southwark Playhouse

Licensed To IllSit through a performance of Jersey Boys, while you still can, and a lot of the narrative is told to the audience as a sequence of events that happened. A lot of description, and not every scene acted out. But the plot is spun out steadily enough, a lot of songs from the band in question are performed, and it’s a highly enjoyable evening. Licensed To Ill is broadly similar, though here, the rather more controversial aspects of the story of the Beastie Boys to date are given less emphasis than the process of making music – or, rather, their sort of music.

As it turns out, it is rather difficult to define what their sort of music is. Like David Bowie, the Beastie Boys, comprised of MCA (Adam El Hagar), Ad-Rock (Daniel Foxsmith) and Mike D (Simon Maeder), reinvented themselves over the years. Some of their lyrics, as performed in this show, are frankly bizarre – never offensive (at least not to me), but impenetrable, either because some of the rapped lines would need a few listens before being fully acquainted with them, or otherwise because they lacked logic. What they do have, in spades, is rhythm and energy.

I am, as I never tire of pointing out, an advocate for being able to appreciate a show with little or even zero familiarity with the source material. I recall going through a phase in the early Nineties of watching a lot of MTV and other satellite channels that played music videos. One of those that got a lot of repeat screenings was ‘Sabotage’, a Beastie Boys song. I didn’t see the appeal at the time, and as that seems to be the only foreknowledge I had of this band, I found this show surprisingly engaging. In fact, I came out interested to find out a little more about them. There aren’t many shows that have that sort of effect on me.

Aside from that one song, it was my turn to not know any of the musical numbers (if that is what they should be called). Certain members of the audience at the press night performance expressed their knowledge of the Beastie Boys’ back catalogue quite vocally indeed, which, unusually for a theatrical production, added to the celebratory atmosphere, pleasant and not distracting.

This isn’t Beastie Boys, Beastie Boys and more Beastie Boys. The narrative is peppered with references to other groups, performers and genres – including, at one point, Rick Astley, whose ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ is about as far away from hip hop as the North Pole is from Antarctica. But, in the end, Astley makes music, as the Beastie Boys did, and there is rightly little point in knocking down the sort of music that makes (some) people happy.

The show describes itself as, amongst other things, “a whole lot of noise”, which I didn’t find all that helpful. It’s not like I left the Southwark Playhouse with ringing in my ears, and the sound levels were never painfully uncomfortable. Acting out a large number of roles is Tope Mikun, and the ways in which various characters are brought to the stage are inventive, well-conceived, and well-executed. The transitions between musical numbers and spoken dialogue is slick and smooth: no clunky scene changes here as the show powers on relentlessly.

A couple of scenes, however, went over my head, especially one in some sort of game show format. Elsewhere, several joyous bursts through the fourth wall were well received and gave some edginess to the show. A staging of ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ was a standout moment. As for Licensed To Ill as a whole: it’s warm, it’s passionate and it’s lively. It’s also ridiculous, but like the Beastie Boys themselves, it doesn’t care. A hearty and enjoyable show.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Licensed To Ill is a big-hearted, brash new show about the Beastie Boys, hip-hop’s most notorious pranksters. Join Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock as they go from teenage punks in 80s New York, via their discovery by legendary producer Rick Rubin, to international rapping superstars.

Featuring hits from ‘Intergalactic’ to ‘Fight For Your Right’, Licensed To Ill is an eclectic theatre-gig mash-up which incorporates three MCs, one DJ, and a whole lot of noise.

This unofficial journey through hip-hop history enjoyed a sell-out run at Camden People’s Theatre in 2015, and now comes to Southwark Playhouse following a UK tour. Winning over Beasties fans and cynics alike, Licensed To Ill does to music theatre what hip-hop did to the humble tracksuit: makes it cool.

Adam El Hagar
Simon Maeder
Daniel Foxsmith
Tope Mikun

Creative Team
Consultant Director Tid
Set Design Jemima Robinson
Costume Design Jemima Robinson with Ellie Wilding
Lighting Design Tim Mascall

Licensed to Ill
Conceived by Adam El Hagar and Simon Maeder and created by the company


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